Tuesday, November 3, 2009

How Best To Teach Children About Religion?

According to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 92 percent of Americans believe in God. It's a smaller number -- 54 percent -- who attend services regularly.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise when WCCO-TV asked first-graders at the International School of Minnesota if they regularly attend religious services, about half the children raised their hands. Then we asked them if they believe in God. The answer: a loud and collective, "Yes." The children don't just believe. They like God.

Six-year-old Evan said, "God is kind and nice because he brings people happiness." Seven-year-old Jerod said, "I really like God 'cause he made our whole world." Their classmate Anna said simply, "I love God."

If they could ask God anything, what would it be?

Trudie, the class clown, wants to ask God "to give me $1,000." More seriously, Apurva would ask God to "help other people who don't have money, give them more money."

Then there are the big questions.

From Will, "How did you create people?" Victor one-upped that one with, "How did you create everything in the whole entire universe?"

"Some of those are the earliest questions, why and where and how," said Carol Dittberner. "And of course the big question, 'Who made God?'"

Dittberner is the director of religious education at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Minneapolis. For 27 years, she's been teaching children about Catholicism using Maria Montessori's hands-on approach.

What does she think is the best way to teach children about God and religion?

"By example," answered Dittberner. "The best thing is to always include your children when you go to worship, when you go to church, when you say your prayers."

Some non-practicing adults blame the fact that religion was over-emphasized when they were children. Is it possible to over-do it?"

"Yes, definitely," said Dittberner. "Anything that's really forced in a negative way on the child can always backfire, so it's better to have it be a very natural thing, a part of your family life, something you all do together."

What about letting children find their own way? Can children find religion on their own?

"It's not really recommended," said Dittberner. "I know some people feel in the freedom of choice, that that should be one of them, but it's better if a child has a foundation in a faith, and when they get older, then they have a place to jump off from, so to speak."

William Doherty agrees. He's an author, therapist and family social science professor at the University of Minnesota.

"Those things that we believe, we should pass on. And if you're not involved in organized religion, then explain why you're not," he said.

The children WCCO talked to seem to find comfort in the idea of God.

"I think he checks on everybody just to make sure they're alright," said 6-year-old Jahlea. Another first-grader, Sonja, said, "When you get hurt, God will heal your owie up."

"Children are very keen on praying for people," said Dittberner. "Who's sick, who's cat died, who's pregnant. They pray for everything."

Isabella explained how she does it. "I say, 'Can you help other people, can you help my friends and help me?'"

Dittberner says prayer teaches children empathy, sympathy and "compassion -- the traits that we most hope children will have."

First-grader Jerod gets the compassion part of it.

"I think God really wants me to help people," he said.

Both Doherty and Dittberner say that even if you raise your children to follow your faith, there's no guarantee they will.

"I know one thing people say to me when their young adults leave the church is, 'Well, at least, they're good people, you know. Like, the bottom line is that we've raised good people," said Dittberner. WCCO-TV
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